Exporting Democracy to the Middle East

The American project to spread democracy in the Middle East in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, and the Iraq War was doomed from the outset. That’s not because the Middle East is not compatible with democracy, but because the project was based on contradictions and erroneous assumptions.

Spreading democracy as a goal of American foreign policy is not new, especially as a reflection of American values. Even in the Middle East, the administration of George H. W. Bush pushed for democratic reform as a priority following the end of the cold war in 1989 and was instrumental in promoting elections in Jordan and elsewhere. During the first few months of the Clinton administration, Secretary of State Warren Christopher spoke of democracy and reform and even raised the issue with Arab leaders.

What happened in both cases was telling. Not only did Islamists do well in the elections in Jordan and Algeria, but those countries that reformed and thus became sensitive to their public opinion were the most reluctant to cooperate with the United States after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990. In the second case, the Clinton administration’s need to rally regional support for the emerging Oslo agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, and its fear of Islamists’ mobilizing to derail these agreements, once again sidelined the democracy question.